Between 1 and 1.5 million Americans are autistic. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability, seeing an increase of over 10% each year (Autism Society of America). It is no surprise, then, for librarians to be seeing increasing numbers of autistic children at their programs.
In early May, a teacher contacted me about bringing her class for a library visit. The teacher seemed nervous on the phone and explained that her students were special- all of them had different forms of autism- many on the lower-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. She was worried about how the students would behave and whether I could “handle” them. I assured her that the library is a welcoming place, that we no longer expect absolute silence in our buildings and that I was more than happy to meet her kids.
I decided to do a bit of research on autism, the autism spectrum, and teaching methods before their visit. What I came away with were the following basic guidelines:
* – Keep things simple and explain what you are doing/are about to do.
* – If possible, use picture cards to show how the program will proceed.
* – Do not worry if the children appear to be “zoning out.”
* – Keep the same routine/outline for each program.
I have since done many programs with this particular group and have found that there are some key differences between these story programs and my usual pre-school storytimes. My “usual” program weaves together as many multi-sensory elements as possible. I may tell a story and use a puppet at the same time. Or sing a song while using flannel characters to illustrate the action. For some autistic children, this multi-sensory approach can be overstimulating. (Keep in mind that every child with autism is different and responds differently to visual and aural activities. The best way to develop your program is by getting to know the children and talking with their teachers or parents about what works for them.) Also, physical contact- even a high-five- can be a very uncomfortable or even terrifying experience for children with certain types of autism. As with all children, it is important for adults to respect their personal space.
For these special storytimes I use picture cards to explain what we will be doing and in what order. When the children arrive at the library, I begin by holding up a picture of children singing and explain that we will first sing a welcome song. Next, I hold up a picture of an adult reading to a group of children and explain that after the song, I will read a book to them. Being told the order of things seems to help the children settle and feel more comfortable. It gives them something concrete to focus on and a sense of control. (For printable picture cards, visit Do2Learn, a great website that has information, lesson plans, and teaching methods designed for autistic children.)
As some autistic children have trouble making eye-contact or focusing on one object, I don’t take it personally when children appear to be ignoring me. Autistic children may not be able to look at me or the pictures while listening to the story. Thus, it may appear that they are gazing off into space, but they are actually listening quite intensely.
A great example: I was recently reading Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo to a group of low-functioning autistic kids. When I got to the part of the story when the narrator is sent a lion, one of the boys dropped on all fours and stuck out his tongue at me! I was delighted, if a little confused. His teacher explained that their class has been learning yoga and the “Lion’s Pose” is one of their favorite moves. The teacher and I were both amazed- not only was the child listening to the story intently, but he was able to make a connection between the story and another classroom activity.
Without a doubt, storytimes with autistic students have been some of the most rewarding programs in my career so far. The kids are smart, surprising, and each time I see them, I learn something new.
Two books that I found particularly helpful: